The Passionate Nomad: The Diary of Isabelle Eberhardt
Independent women travelers of the past were an eccentric bunch. They had to be braver than men, socially as well as physically. Their Wanderlust was a rich mixture: adventure, discovery, missionary and imperialist endeavor came into it; so did mysticism, breakout, sex, and cussedness—the determination to go to forbidden places. “What decided me to go to Lhasa was, above all, the absurd prohibition which closes Thibet,” wrote Alexandra David-Neel. It took her nine years to get there until, disguised as a Tibetan beggar, she finally made it in 1923.
The French authorities banned the Russian Isabelle Eberhardt from Algeria because they were rattled by her unconventional habits—dressing as a male Arab was one of them. She countered with another unconventional move: she married a native spahi. It was a true love match, though the marriage was soon wide open at her end. It also gave her French nationality. So she was able to return to Algeria and even to penetrate regions out of bounds to all but the army. Defying a different prohibition, she spent months as a student in a particularly arcane zawyia (a Muslim seminary).
Edith Durham found her Tibet in the Albanian highlands; the little town of Gusinje, now in Yugoslavia, had “become the Lhassa of Europe,” she wrote in 1908, and so “I was obsessed with the idea of seeing Gusinje—harped only on that, and thought of nothing else.” Her journey from Scutari into the forbidden mountains was surreptitious, but she managed without disguise. To the tribesmen in this remote and barbarian corner of the Ottoman Empire she must have been as exotic as an emu in Lapland. On horseback, and on foot when the going got too rough, she traveled in the costume of an Edwardian lady: boots, long skirt, umbrella, and straw hat. The tribesmen didn’t like the hat: they thought it ugly and ridiculous to wear wheat on the head. So she got rid of it. She loved pleasing them: they were her chosen people. She called them a “child-people”; she was a schoolboy herself, a rumbustious, philistine English public schoolboy with a tremendous sense of honor, justice, and humor. Her verve and funniness make her irresistible.
In fact she was the child of a London surgeon, chosen by unkind Victorian fate to be the unmarried daughter who stayed at home to look after an invalid mother. She first caught sight of the Balkans when, aged thirty-seven, she cruised down the Adriatic on doctor’s orders. After that she studied languages and “the Balkan question” and took a Balkan holiday each year. In 1906 her mother died and she was free. High Albania describes a series of trips she made inland from Scutari in 1908. The “Young Turks” had taken over in Constantinople and promised a “constitution” to all Ottoman subjects. In 1911, when the Albanians finally rose against the Turks, and during the Balkan wars of 1911 and 1913, Durham organized relief in the country; later on she worked in England to promote Albanian autonomy. She wrote ethnographic studies which she hoped would form a basis for sorting out the Balkan nationalities, and served on the council of the Royal Anthropological Institute. In Albania she was known as “the Queen of the Highlanders.” “It is an awful responsibility—to be fallen in love with by a whole nation,” she remarked.
She had been in love with them from the start. Their courage and panache appealed to her schoolboy heart and she put up with their standards of hygiene. The tribal highlanders had only one interest and one hobby: blood feud. Almost anything could be taken as an insult, to be avenged by the death of the perpetrator, or a member of his family. A child would do if no suitable adult victim turned up. Almost every family was “in blood” with two or three others. No malice was borne; every now and then a truce would be declared, and then the enemy could be lavishly entertained until it was time to start shooting him again. It was just like a team tea during an interschool rugby match. Every man carried a gun, and every joyful occasion and religious festival was celebrated by shooting into the air. Durham banged away with the best of them: when the tribes came down to Scutari to celebrate the constitution (a concept that they didn’t understand and that didn’t materialize), they “hailed me with joy, pressed weapons into my hands, and swept me away. Down the main street I went, blazing ball-cartridge from a Martini, and ran about the Cathedral grounds, firing any revolver handed me, while the populace applauded and the Archbishop laughed.”
In the highlands the archbishop was represented, more or less, by a few Franciscans. They served as tribal priests, since the parishes were commensurate with the tribal areas. Durham got on famously with them: most of them were young and terribly isolated. They enjoyed any occasion for feasting, shooting off their guns, or taking an exotic visitor like herself on wild goose chases into forbidden territory. They didn’t expect too much piety from their semipagan parishioners, and Durham liked them for it. Alone among the women travelers, she seems to have had no religious streak at all, and enjoyed the awe-inspiring mountain scenery without any mystical stirrings.
She also enjoyed being an honorary man, “always classed with the buckherd,” as she smugly remarks apropos of a meal in a chieftain’s house where she was seated with the men and waited upon by the women. But she was not the only honorary man: she discovered a whole category of them: the Albanian virgins. Albanian women, Christian as well as Muslim, were sold in marriage as soon as they were born, but remained in their families until they were sixteen. They could then refuse the bridegroom—though that was not easy and usually led to “blood.” If they refused, they had to take a vow of chastity. After that, they could inherit property, which normally went through the male. Sometimes a girl with no brothers was forced to remain a virgin in order to keep land in the family. Albanian virgins dressed, worked, and lived like men; of course they carried guns. There is a photograph of one of them, a baggy, craggy, cheerful-looking creature. Durham must have recognized a sister under the leathery skin.
In general, though, she doesn’t seem keen on sisters. She scorns London ladies and hasn’t much fellow feeling for those of the harem: “A Turkish officer…most kindly insisted on my visiting his family…while Marko [her guide] was entertained by officers below, in which company I too should have felt more at home. I was taken upstairs and shot into an apartment full of stout, pallid, collopy females, and a heap of children…. Being kept mainly for breeding purposes, their conversation was much like what that of a cow might be.” Still, she stands up for women when the men blame them for causing blood feuds by their propensity to run away. They “admitted frankly that they beat and generally maltreated their wives, and that the women had no choice whatever as to whom they married. I maintained that under the circumstances they naturally bolted. Anyone would—I would myself.”
This shocks the jolly Franciscan who has taken her under his wing, but he agrees “that matrimony was the root of nearly all evil. The thing of which he was quite certain was that both he and I had acted very wisely in abstaining from it. He quoted St. Paul, in Latin, to support this view. And the fact that I had sworn no vow, and had yet managed to escape, interested him much.”
Travel offered escape from sex, but could also be a chase after or even across it. Isabelle Eberhardt’s trajectory was particularly bizarre. The daughter of a Russian family settled in Geneva, she first visited North Africa on holiday with her widowed mother. Both fell in love with Islam and converted. Isabelle combined transvestism with Don Juanism, though you would have trouble working that out from her Diary. However, there is plenty of other documentation about her; so she rides again and again, a stage army of one white-robed horseman galloping out of the desert and into a new biography every twenty years or so. She became a legend the moment she died, aged twenty-seven, in 1903. Her death was quite accidental—a flash flood—but she probably had not long to live anyway. She was extremely ill from chronic malaria; she also had syphilis, no teeth, and an addiction to kef and arrak. Rana Kabbani, who introduces the Virago edition of her diary, thinks that she was anorexic because she was flat-chested, hairy, and had no periods. All this made it easier for her “to pass as a man.” She didn’t exactly pass, though; everyone saw through her disguise, and the Arabs, though not the French, went along with it from courtesy. It was ideal for her sexual purposes, because in North African society it was standard behavior for men to pick up boys. Eberhardt looked like a boy and had only to beckon.
The combination of boyishness, horsemanship, daring, sultry passion, and early death made her a romantic heroine. She might have been invented by Pierre Loti; and in a way she was. He was her favorite adolescent reading and a strong influence on her prose, which falls in unfinished, overlapping periods like waves on a beach. Kabbani argues that she wasn’t a romantic at all, just a hippie before her time, like Rimbaud. The argument ignores the fact that romanticism changes with each generation. Eberhardt’s North African voyage being “a sexual trip…that offered erotic as well as narcotic highs” wouldn’t disqualify her from being a romantic even of Byron’s vintage. Still, she might have come from the Me generation: her diary tells one what she felt, but never explains the day-to-day mechanics of her knife-edge existence or says much about the society she knew as probably no other European has ever done. She is the least informative of the Virago travelers, much less fun to read than to read about (for instance in Cecily Mackworth’s The Destiny of Isabelle Eberhardt, 1951). Her diary is all sighs, invocation, aspiration, meditation; she saved her occasional vivid descriptions (why shouldn’t she) for the journalism with which she tried, by fits and starts, to pull herself out of the destitution into which she and her husband had slid. The comparison with Rimbaud doesn’t hold as far as talent is concerned.
Apart from drinking like a fish, Eberhardt was a very devout Muslim. Her biographers claim that she was a mystic, but as far as one can see she got no further than longing to be one. One wishes in vain that she would at least explain what doctrines were taught, what practices practiced in the zawyia.
Alexandra David-Neel is more informative, and seems confident of having come quite a way along the road to illumination. If Eberhardt is the most neurotic traveler David-Neel must be the most bizarre. A Frenchwoman in spite of her English-sounding name, she had tried opera singing and journalism before setting out on her illicit journey to Lhasa. She was fifty-four when she got there, an unusual age for tramping through the Himalayan snows. Later she achieved another triumph over the accepted norm by living to be one hundred. The British authorities extradited her from northern India, so she had to approach her goal through western China. She prepared for the journey by studying at a Buddhist monastery in Chinese Tibet, and by living as a hermit in a cave 13,000 feet above sea level. There is a stern photograph of her in her hermit’s felt dressing gown and pixie hat, and beside it an oval studio portrait of her traveling companion Yongden, looking apprehensive in a butterfly collar, striped cravat, and granny specs. Yongden was a young lama she met in Sikkim. He was thirty years her junior, and lived with her until he died in 1955; by this time she had adopted him as her son. Peter Hopkirk’s introduction says he was Sikkimese; David-Neel says he was Tibetan.
It is no use worrying about discrepancies like that. The editing of the Virago/ Beacon Travelers series is as wayward as its authors. Some books have indexes, notes, glossaries; others are left to manage without such luxuries. My Journey to Lhasa is the quaint est of them all. The translation is as heavy as an elephant but not so sure-footed. Some of the faded photographs are almost invisible. The map is perfectly dotty: six different kinds of dotted line mark six different journeys, only one of which is the subject of the book. All the lines tangle bewilderingly with other dotted lines, which may or may not be frontiers. Hardly any of the places marked occur in the text, while only one or two that do make it on to the map. It doesn’t matter too much, because the central bit of the map has slunk off to hide in the binding anyway, and it all adds to the general Chinese Gothic effect. Besides, suspicion grows on one that Alexandra David-Neel had a Münchhausen side to her.
Peter Hopkirk does nothing to allay that suspicion by casting doubt on a supernatural incident related in another of her books. Its title is redolent of the interwar Tauchnitz editions sometimes to be found decaying on the shelves of old-fashioned European hotels. It is called With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet. My Journey to Lhasa describes moments of ecstasy in the solitude of the high mountains: but uninitiated travelers get those too. On the other hand, a state of Buddhist calm is of practical use because it enables David-Neel to remain “unanxious among the anxious” even when threatened by brigands, mountain tigers, or hypothermia.
What she really seems to have enjoyed (and Yongden too) was not so much mystic trance as mystification. She loved dressing up every bit as much as Eberhardt, but her costume was not becoming: she traveled as Yongden’s old mother, her hair dyed black with Chinese ink and supplemented by two yak hair plaits, her face darkened with soot. (A dissenting caption reads “Her Face Is Smeared With Black Lac [sic] According To the Custom Of Thibetan Women”—which is not quite the same thing.) When danger threatened from humans—as opposed to tigers, bears, snow leopards, or wolves—Yongden would pretend to be the son of a black sorcerer, and David Neel the sorcerer’s initiated spouse. This produced instant respect, especially when “accompanied by brief choreographic exercises in which I shook the lap of my large dress as if I were liberating a host of devils who had been sheltered in it.” David-Neel’s sense of humor is quite like Durham’s, but only just struggles out from under the translation.
Her magic worked on herself as well as on her spectators: “I could not suppress a thrill born of the occult atmosphere I myself had created,” she writes. “Invisible beings seemed to surround us. I was thinking of those I had invoked…and, after all, I did not altogether disbelieve in that mysterious world that is so near to those who have lived in the wilds.”
On the other hand, the reader may find it difficult altogether to believe that David-Neel and Yongden spent several days lost in the snow, with no cover and no food but brick tea boiled over a fire of sticks, he with a sprained ankle and she with her boots and feet cut to ribbons on the jagged ice. Hopkirk doesn’t quite believe it either. Was it a case of mystic thuma reskiang (self-healing), he asks.
What you can believe in is a putrifying sheep’s stomach stuffed with the animal’s gelatinous guts and liver. It was offered as a delicacy. David-Neel admits she refused it. It’s her only admission of weakness.
These women were all as brave as lions in the face of heat, cold, starvation, torrents, precipices, wild animals; unpredictable humans, and unimaginable filth. Politely they swallowed unspeakable substances and lay down, if not quite with lepers, then on greasy sheepskins with bugs, fleas, and seriously unwashed strangers—themselves, of course, seriously unwashed as well. David-Neel and Eberhardt do not seem to mind: Durham is always complaining about not being able to do her toilette. Perhaps there’s no connection between cleanliness and godliness after all.